From May 2000 to August 2005, Brazil lost more Amazon land to “development” than all of Greece. Since 1971, corporate ranchers and agribusiness cleared tens of thousands of acres for grazing, lumber and mining interests. During that period, Brazilian policies and World Bank projects to promote “progress” also helped decimate some 232,000 square miles of Amazon rainforest.
On June 17, my wife and I decided to see the place before “progressive” demolition grew beyond reparable stages. In Manaus, we boarded the 16-passenger Otter, with two friends and eight others eco-tourists. The 3-day cruise up the Rio Negro took us into land ruled in the late 19th Century by Brazil’s rubber barons who aspired to make Manaus into a South American Paris.
A story that developed into lore had Henry Wickham a British gonif (Yiddish for a transgressor of moral or civil law) stealing the much coveted and protected rubber seeds and sneaking them into Malaysia, a British colony. Wickham inflated his easy-to-accomplish theft into the equivalent of a pink panther job to draw investors’ attention to one of his Asian business schemes. Wickham got knighted for his “contribution” (stripping the rubber monopoly from greedy Brazilian tycoons and allowing British tycoons to sell it on the world market).
With competition, the high price of rubber dropped dramatically. The British cartel controlled rubber sales and poured it onto the world market. (Warren Dean, ”Brazil and the Struggle for Rubber” Cambridge, England)
Manaus slid from boom to semi-bust. But while riding high, the jungle city’s self-made gentry, using other people’s labor, did some elaborate construction. Contemporary Manaus is rife with their palaces and statues. To build a Customs House (the Alfandega,1906), the elders imported stones from Scotland to give it that European look.
The Opera House, copied from the Paris original in 1896, contains the tell-tale high ceiling and four tiers with box seats for the special people. The interior dome was painted in the flowery style of the times; gew gaws stick out of the gold-enameled posts and railings, offering further testimony to the rubber moguls’ bad but spare-no-expense taste. The Manaus elite convinced themselves they would perpetually control the monopoly on rubber. They behaved like typical nouveau riche: pretentiously.
Now called Teatro Amazonas (refurbished in 1990) remains as reconstructed proof of their once golden era. A chamber orchestra and a guitar ensemble with a virtuoso soprano –no admission fee – filled the vast space with classical sounds.
The half empty house – many tourists in the audience – showed that the steamy tropical city’s 1.7 million current residents had little interest in old world culture.
The noisy, commerce-crazy streets, however, display the culture of hawkers and cockroach capitalists announcing their less than alluring merchandise — unless you needed cheap cell phones, emergency underwear or a pair of Havaianas rubber beach sandals), as we did for our Rio Negro cruise.
The glimmering black river – at record high-water level –reflected mirror images of surface plants growing in or beside it. We didn’t need the insect repellent, as the anticipated bug attack did not occur on the boat or the smaller canoe that made its way through smaller Amazonian streams.
The Rio Negro’s black appearance, explained the guide, resulted from immense plant runoff that seeped into the water. Trees and other vegetation leak tannic acid into the 80-degree river, making it the equivalent of a vast flow of strong tea. The river’s extremely low ph level vitiates mosquito and other insect reproduction, but not so for fish or animals – of which we got some glimpses when they surfaced.
On the first morning piranhas –remember them from Hollywood movies – dined on raw beef on our baited hooks. In the afternoon, the little nippers got fed to grateful – we assumed — sweet-water dolphins, the males of which are pink.
In the canoe, in the velvety black of Amazon night, the guide flashed his battery powered torch through the trees. The canoe stopped. He prodded a branch with the paddle: A six foot long tree boa waiting to wrap itself around a frog or caiman attacked the paddle instead.
Our curiosity disturbed the boa’s nightly wait for prey, or so I imagined. Did the Genesis writers draw inspiration to postulate such a “curiosity” effect on Eve? Did this primitive creature cause Man’s downfall? It only wanted to catch a frog; instead inquisitive people bothered it. Snakes have had their revenge – biblically, anyway.
The chirping of unseen frogs provided sound effects for the scene as the guide provoked the irritated boa to squirm from the tree to his canoe paddle so we could see his flitting tongue and angry – or just hungry – eyes.
The Milky Way lit the sky, more vast than in the expanses of the West in summer time. The guide alerted us to watch for glowing red eyes – a black caiman awaiting his dinner.
This nocturnal, meat-eating reptile thrives in slow-moving rivers and rain forests. He also would have enjoyed a piranha dinner, but instead he got caught as the guide steered the canoe in the direction of a glowing red light – his eyes.
The guide lay along the front of the craft, reached down and grabbed the beast by the throat. The tourists held and felt the two foot baby caiman and examined his powerful tail, which he uses to push himself through the water, his mighty jaw and webbed feet. Then, the guide him tossed back into the water, humiliated perhaps but physically unharmed.
We watched brightly colored Toucans and Macaws perched on trees, and harpy eagles above us. Later, in the Manaus zoo we examined up close the talons that resembled dockers’ hooks and the feet and legs, thick and muscled as a boxer’s forearm.
I spotted a Hoatzin. This red-eyed, blue faced avian about the size of a large chicken sports a feathered head crown. It seemed about to fall off its tree perch just before it hopped awkwardly to another branch.
The night time canoe rides through the narrow rivulets and swampy waters got me a nasty wasp sting, but not a glimpse of the onca, the feared jaguar of the Amazon whose fabled jaws can crack a human skull. None of these creatures would “think” of fouling their nests to provide raw material for packaging, chopsticks or fuel for the vehicles so beloved by the “thinking” member of the earth. The one mammal that “thinks” is also the only creature that has used thought to imperil its own future.
Other species assume reproduction as their driving force. An Amazon tree casts its brown seeds in the black water to mature for three months until the green shows and the shell opens as a new shoot emerges.
The tree could not “think” to create conditions so as to eliminate the water it needed for its seed to mature, any more than the army ants who attacked members of our group as we tromped through the jungle would “postulate” a change in their reproductive conditions.
Executive of large corporations don’t think; they plan for profits. They need to “own” the Amazon, chop down its trees, purloin its medicinal plants and change its interdependent nature, thus affecting the world’s rainfall: outwitting the grand design. Their PR departments will call it “improvement.”
The Indians of this gigantic expanse have seen their population reduced, their habitat soiled, their cultures polluted: the toll of “Progress.” Scientists differ as to how much more rainforest loss will serve as the tipping point for irretrievable global warming and out-of-control weather disasters. But they agree that it will happen if the “developers” continue to cut away at the Amazonian rainforest.
As we watched the merging waters of the Amazon and the Rio Negro outside of Manaus, and we stared up stream at the vast expanse of water and jungle, we felt tiny, insignificant and fortunate to have learned – once again – the nature of our place in the larger scheme.
During President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s years in office the profit-seeking invaders have destroyed more Amazon rain forest than during other four-year periods since 1988, according to Instituto Socioambiental. Since 2003, developers, loggers and ranchers eliminated an area of forest cover larger than South Carolina.
Lula did increase enforcement of environmental regulations, and has slowed the destruction engine — a little. He acknowledges tree destruction contributes to global warming. But Brazilian lobbies, like those in the United States, have made strict enforcement difficult. As unrelenting human predators continue to covet Amazon wealth the world watches anxiously.
In 1968 in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention demonstrators chanted to the police beating them: The whole world is watching.” It didn’t stop the cops.